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Turkish Delights

A traveler returns to Turkey, finding much changed, much the same

IN the robust image of poet Nazim Hikmet, Turkey is a "country shaped like the head of a mare/ Coming full gallop from far off Asia." His lines hail the successive migrations of Turkish peoples that spilled westward into Anatolia almost a thousand years ago, making the vast central grassland their own. A little poetic license allows another, more contemporary picture.Today, legions of tourists bus inward from Turkey's ample shore, creating gridlock in the streets of ancient Greek cities. They parade in ceaseless single-file lines through the extraordinary underground towns like Derinkuyu, and, by their very numbers, endanger the venerable troglodytic homes and churches of early Christian Cappadocia. In the nearly two decades that separate Mary Lee Settle's first sojourn in Turkey from her recent one in 1989, the western third of Turkey has been discovered and developed for tourists. Bodrum, that quiet jewel of the turquoise coast, where once the author spent three years writing a book, now hosts visitors who prowl the expensive leather, silk, gold, and rug shops, while rock music wails in the streets. In a land where the cuisine is among the world's finest, the most touted restaurant in Bodrum is It alian, not Turkish. Because Settle, who won the 1978 National Book Award for her Turkish-set novel "Blood Tie," writes so graphically and sensitively about the peoples, the landscape, and the history of this nation, the book is being marketed as an exotic sampling of Turkish delights. That slant is reinforced by the dust jacket, which illustrates a tropical dreamland punctuated with architectural examples of the many civilizations that have flourished there. But the book is less, and much more, than these distracting embell ishments. Settle is not a utopian tour guide. She declines to romanticize what she sees. She is capable of admiring the delicate workmanship of a Seljuk gate, and in the next breath reporting the growth of sterile, cement-block apartment buildings that surround most modern Turkish cities like a grim, gray shroud. How much more bewitchingly untrue the wedding she attends would be if she were only to catalog the plaintive eastern Turkish music that was played and turn a blind eye to the bottles of Coca-Cola on the t ables and the Western jeans on the guests. No, regardless of the publicity, this book is no simple vacation enticement. Still, contemporary travel and tourism are never very far from Settle's meditations. As she leisurely circles out from Istanbul, beyond the so-called tourist line to Trebizond, then zigzags through the middle third of the nation, and finally enters Bodrum - the city whose people and sights once mesmerized her - she confronts, with confessed reluctance, the transformation of Turkey from a peasant country to an urban, industrial one. It is almost as if this "hard, lived-over ground," so rich in tradition, breached some unwritten code when it chose to modernize. North Americans have come to tolerate the ugliness and vulgarity encountered daily in their cities and strip malls. They accept the convenience and the surfeit of consumer goods, and screen out the dirt and garishness. Yet transplant the shopping center to Turkey, or, for that matter, to Spain, Portugal, or Greece, and Americans are no longer able to cope. Like Settle, they see themselves and their material culture as impudent intruders in the unbroken serenity of an ancient, pastoral way of life. It is as if these places need to remain refuges of timelessness while the West endures the pace of change. Often Settle seems on the edge of pronouncing that the Turks should have remained premodern for her diversion! But she does not say it. Instead, she uses the trip through Turkey as an interval of meditation on modernity and agelessness. However much those who have traveled in Turkey respond nostalgically to Settle's polished orchestration of history, mythology, and, especially, the warmth of everyday life, they will have to admit that it is ultimately a highly personal daybook. While Settle journeys from arkadas to arkadas - from friend to friend, or more aptly from friend of a friend to friend of a friend - she gains the mental fortitude to return to her old haunt, Bodrum, which figures as a symbol of the abasement of traditional Turkish culture. Approaching the city, her fear mounts that the "small, dear place" has been destroyed. Caught in a traffic jam, she observes that she can find not one landmark from her former days. Yachts have replaced the small sponge-diving boats. "They are all gone," she grieves, "the carpenter, the fishermen, the sponge divers, the dolmuses stuffed with country people." But in a regrettably unrecorded moment she manages to stop "searching for what was gone" and begins "to enjoy what was there." From the instant that she finds it "churlish to mourn," she is able to seek out old friends and to savor the best of Bodrum, despite its glamour and tawdriness. Early in the text, Settle introduces us to the "mis" tense, the Turkish verb tense that storytellers use to declaim their tales. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't, this ingenious tense implies. By the end of the book, Settle's purpose in making this linguistic excursion is clear. Her roving should be understood in this tense, in so far as it installs the past in make-believe and tacitly situates the crucial challenges for Turkey squarely in the present. Returning to Turkey, Settle absorbs the piercing ( and more political) sentiment Nazim Hikmet affirmed in his poem: Bloody wrists, clenched teeth Bare feet, Land like a precious silk carpet This hell, this paradise is ours.

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